A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the Drug Enforcement Administration can move forward with its suspension of a Florida pharmaceutical distributor for alleged ineffective control of a powerful painkiller.
Judge Reggie Walton denied Cardinal Health Inc.'s request for a preliminary injunction Wednesday, a few weeks after the company won a temporary restraining order blocking the DEA's suspension efforts, which has now been lifted. Cardinal Health said it would appeal Wednesday's ruling.
To combat the abuse of pain pills like oxycodone, the DEA issued orders earlier this month to suspend the sale of controlled substances by two CVS pharmacies in the Orlando area, and the shipment of them from Cardinal Health's Lakeland, Fla.-based center that supplied the stores. The agency said the pharmacies were dispensing amounts of oxycodone far in excess of legitimate needs _ the first time stores in a national pharmacy chain were targets of suspension orders to fight Florida's prescription drug abuse problem.
The two CVS stores, which also won a temporary restraining order, will have a hearing on their case Friday.
Walton, ruling from the bench at the end of Wednesday's hearing, said that he agreed with the DEA's position that companies "do have an obligation to police themselves."
A lawyer for Cardinal, Randolph Moss, said the company was committed to ensuring its products are dispensed properly, and argued that closing down its shipments of controlled substances won't do anything to curtail prescription drug abuse. He said the DEA was wielding "an extraordinary power" in suspending the shipments.
But Justice Department lawyer Lee Reeves said companies like Cardinal have a responsibility to ensure that the products they ship were not being abused.
"Distributor should be doing site visits," he said. "...They're supposed to be proactive. They're supposed to audit the stores."
Moss said if the DEA had concerns, it should have opened a dialogue with the company.
The government has argued the distribution center failed to maintain effective control measures to prevent illegitimate distribution after being cited in 2008. Cardinal paid $34 million to settle claims that it failed to report to the DEA suspicious orders of the painkiller hydrocodone, best known under the brand name Vicodin, but the company did not admit any wrongdoing.
Earlier this month, Walton ordered the DEA to explain its rationale for the suspensions, saying said he wanted to make sure the agency was not acting without due process.
The companies have argued the DEA did not demonstrate an imminent danger to public safety required to shut down their sales, and in fact could harm public health by cutting sick patients off from their medicines.
In a statement, the Dublin, Ohio-based Cardinal said it has demonstrated a commitment to help fight prescription drug abuse.
"We have genuine respect for the work of the DEA, but effectively addressing prescription drug abuse requires a very different approach than does the war on illicit drugs," the statement said.